Big Government Crowds Out Civil Society—and the Poor Are Paying for it - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Big Government Crowds Out Civil Society—and the Poor Are Paying for it

The following is excerpted from Patrick M. Garry’s excellent little book, The False Promise of Big Government.

“Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

This line, typically attributed to former congressman Barney Frank, is a favorite of progressives when they call to expand government.

But the statement completely misrepresents the American experience. It ignores the fact that the nongovernmental institutions of civil society—the family, schools, religious organizations, civic groups, neighborhood associations, and the rest—provide the cultural glue that makes political self-government possible. Civil society has always preceded and given rise to government, which was never intended to be the principal occupation of society.

The trouble is that as government becomes the dominant institution in society, it crowds out competing social institutions. The more things government does, the fewer things Americans are able to do together in other social venues.

Government is a necessary institution in democratic society, but it cannot take the place of all the other social institutions. A vibrant civil society requires a balanced ecosystem of interdependent institutions. When government attempts to replace or diminish other institutions, all of society falters, including government itself. It can be a vicious circle: government centralization weakens those social bonds formed through families, religion, communities, and civic organizations; and the weaker those nongovernmental institutions become, the more government steps into the void.

The fraying of civil society is particularly problematic for the “little guy” for whom the government expanders claim to work. That’s because the institutions of civil society generally offer the most effective help to the common person who wishes to advance his or her life condition.

For the vast majority of people, life is lived parochially and locally, not nationally. Local communities and associations give shape and meaning to our lives, as we are embedded in an intricate web of human relationships, associations, and cultural mores. At the local level is where most of the meaningful things in life happen: raising a family, working at a job, starting a business, interacting in social groups, volunteering in the community. Global and nationalized connections can become abstractions, whereas real civic self-government and genuine concern for others are possible in the communities in which people live. Because family, community, religion, social relationships, and work are crucial for meaningful living, the institutions of civil society promote human happiness more effectively than big-government programs can.

Civil society and its institutions also act as a buffer between the individual and the state, limiting the power of government. This is one reason why big-government advocates ignore the effects of their favored policies on civil society. Broadly speaking, they hold a negative view of society—as Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center put it in a 2013 speech, they “tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it,” and government is their favored reform tool. Proponents of defined government, by contrast, see in society something positive that can help individuals elevate their lives—in Levin’s words, they “tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it.”

Over the past several decades, the government expanders have won out. Civil society has been weakened considerably, and countless Americans have suffered for it.


The nongovernmental institutions of civil society transmit to each new generation those virtues without which free societies cannot survive. When these institutions function properly, they help prevent people from becoming too dependent on government. They also unify people and empower them to control government.

When an expanding government crowds out civil society, all that connects diverse individuals in society is a rights-allocating government, with people having nothing in common other than a competitive struggle for government benefits and recognition. This struggle produces an adversarial culture that particularly hurts the poor, who need an assimilation culture that connects them to the rest of society.

In his book The Fractured Republic, Levin argues that many of our social problems reflect “a view of society as consisting only of individuals and a state,” which has “set loose a scourge of loneliness and isolation.” At the same time, Levin writes, the federal government “now engages in more direct intervention . . . in the daily lives of Americans than it ever has in peacetime.” These two results—individual isolation and federal interventionism—are connected. The former occurs because the latter has weakened mediating institutions like churches and neighborhood organizations, which are powerful decentralizing forces that scatter economic, social, and political power too widely for any government to seize complete control of society.

Progressive elites claim that America’s strength lies in its diversity, and that its greatest challenges lie in the toleration of that diversity. But this is not right. The reality of America is diversity, but its greatest strength has always been its ability to unify the diverse. This strength, however, can be maintained only by a culture of commonality, by a society that means more than just a large number of individuals ruled by a big central government.

Of course, the diversity touted by progressive elites is not the genuine diversity that emerges from the pursuits and values of a free, pluralistic civil society; it is a diversity coerced through a federally managed adversarial culture that divides people into groups of victims and oppressors.

Religious organizations are institutions of civil society that greatly influence quality of life, especially for the poor. To religious institutions, which strive to practice the virtues of charity and compassion, the poor are not just clients or program beneficiaries—they are children of God. So the work of religious activists is guided not by the job descriptions of government bureaucrats but by a higher duty. Unfortunately, the crowding out of religion from the public square has deprived the poor of committed activists who focus on individualized needs.

The ACA’s health-care mandates illustrate this crowding out. The law forced the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns that runs homes for the elderly poor, to violate their religious beliefs by having to offer contraceptive coverage for their employees. Until the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned lower-court rulings, the Little Sisters faced $70 million in fines, which would have denied the elderly poor the compassionate care offered by the Little Sisters.

The fact that a private institution cited religious beliefs to oppose the program goals of a growing federal government seemed to incense federal officials to the point of vindictiveness. Even though the Obama administration let other organizations, like unions and congressional employees, escape the ACA’s mandates, it went after the Little Sisters and their religious beliefs, which dared to intrude on the social space that the federal government now claimed for itself. The administration paid little heed to the fact that religious organizations and other nongovernmental groups provided health and welfare services long before the government got involved. The Little Sisters, for instance, have ministered to the poor and elderly since 1839. A century ago, religious organizations had a prominent presence in the nation’s prisons. These organizations and their committed volunteers focused not on some generic bureaucratic blueprint but on the specific needs of the individual. But as the federal government expanded its role during the Great Society era, it monopolized social-welfare venues, such as prisons, and pushed out those private organizations.


Poverty is not only material. Its most debilitating deficits are behavioral and social; its most serious deprivations are cultural. Poverty accompanies a living environment of chaos and harshness. Even if the poor get financial sustenance, they will continue to struggle if they lack social relationships or have no direction to their lives.

The unemployed poor suffer in ways that go beyond economic injury. They suffer from all the deprivations caused by a failure to work. There is dignity in earning a livelihood and providing for one’s self and family. Work fosters virtues that can come from nowhere else—virtues like self-reliance, diligence, dependability, and personal responsibility. Correspondingly, unemployment can be demoralizing and dehumanizing.

Being poor today is not like being poor in 1936, during the depths of the Great Depression. The material poverty was much worse in 1936, but it did not have the generationally debilitating effect that poverty today is having. The poor in 1936 became the middle class in 1956. That is in large part because, in 1936, the larger culture supported the fundamental goals of life: to live dignified lives, to be law-abiding and hardworking, to be faithful to one’s family, to uphold the ideals of decency. This cultural direction prevented the poor from falling into a pit of chaos, desperation, and dependence, out of which they or their children could not climb.

Materially, the situation for the poor has actually improved. According to data compiled by the Congressional Budget Office, the average after-tax household income for the poorest quintile of American households increased 30 percent between 1979 and 2010, from $14,800 to $19,200 (both numbers reported in 2010 dollars); the second-poorest quintile saw after-tax income rise 31 percent, from $29,900 to $39,100. Many people living at the lower economic levels of society have iPhones, computers, and flat-screen televisions. Still, inequality is getting worse, as the poor fall further behind and have a harder time entering the middle class.

Their lives are in a downward spiral, as they are cut off from a culture of responsibility and self-discipline that government spending programs cannot create. So a vicious circle ensues: the more the federal government drains the energy and independence of the social mediating institutions, the more that individuals become increasingly atomized and separated; and the more individuals become disconnected, the more a centralized government steps into the void.

Government is inherently limited in its ability to fight poverty. Government spending cannot provide the poor with the social and cultural support systems that flourished generations ago. It cannot provide the social capital they need to improve their lives. This social capital includes such virtues as self-discipline, delayed gratification, ambition, and respect for authority. These virtues can be inculcated only through the institutions of civil society, which are more responsive to individualized needs than is government.

Patrick M. Garry, JD, PhD, is professor of law at the University of South Dakota. He is the award-winning author of several books, including Conservatism Redefined.

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